Sunday’s FA Women’s Super League Continental Tyres Cup encounter between Millwall Lionesses and Reading Women may be a dead rubber on paper, but it’s an intriguing matchup between two sides punching above their weight in their respective divisions.
Five games into the new FA WSL 1 season, Reading sits in fifth place, just a point behind Liverpool and two points behind Arsenal, a team that should be challenging Manchester City and Chelsea for the title.
Kelly Chambers’ side were the first to take points off Chelsea in a thrilling 2-2 draw before the international break, and stunned Liverpool with a 3-0 win at Widnes toward the start of the campaign.
The team also beat Arsenal in their own backyard earlier in this season’s Continental Cup, proving they may now belong among the best in the country.
For FA WSL 2 side Millwall, led by manager Lee Burch, it’s been a breakthrough year. The Lionesses finished eighth, ninth, and eighth again during their first three seasons as a second-tier club, with Burch taking charge halfway through the 2016 season.
In the 2017 Spring Series, Millwall finished an impressive third, a position they are currently replicating three months into the new campaign. Burch’s exciting side sit just a point behind leaders Doncaster Belles, but are unbeaten and would sit top by two points had they not been deducted three points for fielding an unregistered player on the opening day of the season.
Despite their quick rise to the top, Burch puts the success down to hard work and enthusiasm on the field, rather than any major changes off of it.
“We’ve tried to implement changes on the pitch, it’s more so down to the club itself to catch up off the pitch,” said Burch.
“Millwall have been down the bottom of the league and never achieved anything major in the league, so we decided to build our foundations on the pitch slowly in order to move forward.”
Young talent has been a big part of that for Burch, with Arsenal youngsters Charlie Devlin and Rianna Dean spending time on loan with the club, plus the emergence of England U-17 star Ella Rutherford.
“I inherited a strong squad but they didn’t have direction, they were playing very obvious football. When we actually came in, we went to a very rigid 4-4-2 in order to be solid, so we actually went backwards before we could go forwards.
“A lot of players weren’t playing that now are. Ella was on the cusp and would have got there eventually, but Leigh Nicol, Billie Brooks, and Amber Gaylor were in and out of the side. We were creating chances galore, but we weren’t taking them. If it wasn’t Ashlee Hincks or Amber’s little spell of scoring, then we weren’t scoring.”
Twenty-eight-year-old forward Hincks has been at Millwall for two and a half years now and has witnessed plenty of ups and downs during her time in London with the club.
Recently voted the first FA WSL 2 Player of the Month for November, Hincks said “belief” has been a big part of their rise.
“That was never there before,” she said. “You’d go into games praying you didn’t get beat by too many goals. To turn up every week and concede so many goals, we’ve completely flipped that. Going forward, there’s not one point in a game where we don’t believe we can go on and win a match.
“A lot of factors seem to have fallen into place at the same time. Moving grounds has helped us, I loved playing at the Den but it didn’t help us in terms of our results on the pitch. The move to Fisher Athletic has helped us, we play and train there and we’ve managed to retain our squad and stay together.”
Millwall’s training schedule is vastly difference to the full-time sides in FA WSL 1, with the Lionesses training no more than two or three times per week compared to Reading’s full-time basis, with players coming from as far and wide as Norwich if you happen to be goalkeeper Sarah Quantrill.
Burch himself travels to and from Southampton for every session, and the commute and part-time nature of the club and its players can provide pitfalls.
“Being in central London, the traffic is always an issue,” said Burch. “The other day Blackwall Tunnel was shut and quite a few of our players didn’t even make it into training, it can be that bad sometimes.
“It takes me two-and-a-half hours to get into training but the commitment is there for us. The players and staff are not doing it for the money, they want to play at this level. Sarah travels from Norwich and does not miss a session, she’s never even late. I’ve never worked with or come across a player with an attitude like that.”
It’s a sentiment that teammate Hincks echoed, “I’ve just bought a house in Kent, so it takes a good hour for me and that’s without traffic. Sarah starts work at 6 a.m., so on a football night she’s not getting home until 1 a.m. and then has to be back up again five hours later.
“We train on a Wednesday and a Friday night, with gym sessions in between. 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on a Friday night is a life killer, but I do feel in a lot better shape when I turn up for a game on a Sunday.”
Finances are also an issue for the club, with every member of the playing and coaching staffs at part-time, Millwall largely rely on the set fee of £62,500 they receive from the FA at the beginning of each campaign to get by.
The club have also lost BT Sport as their shirt sponsor for the new season, and Burch admitted the club would be “down the bottom” in terms of a budget compared to their rivals.
“Our budget hasn’t changed,” he said. “We rely on the FA fee and then any outside sponsorship we can bring in. There’s times we want to do stuff but we can’t due to a lack of funding. But I never try to hide behind budgets, it’s eleven players against eleven players, and over the course of the season we have to try and level that out.”
Millwall now face Reading knowing they can’t qualify for the quarterfinals of the Continental Cup, but can take heart from the fact they held Arsenal to 2-2 for a while in their last match against FA WSL 1 opposition.
Hincks said, “It’s only natural we’re not going to be up there with them for ninety minutes, that’s just the reality.
“Before the Arsenal game, I’d worked all day and then sat in traffic to get over to the game to play. You can only prepare the best you can, but it isn’t going to be as good as theirs. You’d imagine they will be physically better placed for the game than we will be.
“But we played them preseason and they didn’t want to play on our 3G pitch [artificial surface], we had to go up there and play the game instead, so maybe that will be something we can use to our advantage.”
For Kelly Chambers’ Reading, their rise has been even more meteoric given they were in FA WSL 2 alongside Millwall when the league started in 2014.
Chambers has been at the helm the whole time, overseeing the transition from part-time club to full-time club, with players such as England international Fran Kirby moving on for a FA WSL transfer record at the time.
The increase in income and backing from the club has allowed Chambers to attract current internationals like Fara Williams, Jade Moore, and Jo Potter to the club, and Chambers says the progress is down to a long-term approach.
“When the FA WSL license application initially came around, the club wanted to walk before it could run. We had all the backing to apply for FA WSL 1 at that point, but we decided to build from FA WSL 2 upwards.
“The first season was about getting a team together, having a year together before we could compete for the FA WSL 2 title, which we did in our second year. We knew at some point with the support we had we would be in the top tier at some point and the club have always been very supportive of that.”
After Reading were promoted as champions in 2015 — despite selling Kirby to Chelsea after the 2015 World Cup — the Royals struggled to make an impact in the top division, finishing second to the bottom with just one win from their 16 matches.
The transformation in the 12 months since has been staggering, with Reading now sitting in the top half of the league and now providing a real stern test for even the biggest teams in the league.
Chambers said, “We knew we had to push on, we were very loyal to the players who got us promoted but we realized we needed better quality on the pitch and more investment from the club. The first year in FA WSL 1 we still had some part-time players, so post-2016 we decided to make the jump to everyone being full-time.
“It’s allowed us to attract a better caliber of player; there’s still a handful of players with us who were with us in FA WSL 2 and it’s been great to be able to develop those players along with us. We want to be challenging the Man Citys and Chelseas now and it was just about developing from last season and finding players who fit into our club and how we want to run things.”
Every player is full-time now and has been since the start of the Spring Series, with the team training every day and the odd day off if the team need to train at the weekend.
Despite the arrivals of Williams, Moore, and Potter, Chambers said the club doesn’t have a big budget, but is proud the club has been able to pay a full-time wage to all their players and attract top internationals to the club.
“They all had offers from other clubs,” the manager admitted. “It’s important for players to come in and see the environment, sit down with myself, and get a feel for what we do. They know they will develop as a player and showing them what work actually happens away from just the team stuff has been what they buy into.
“We’re not close to the top teams in terms of budget, but I don’t think we’re that far away either. The top teams aren’t paying for things like a training ground, which at the moment we are. But, the club are building a new training ground where the women will be inclusive so it’s nice to know that will be coming around the corner in the next 18 months.”
One of Chambers’ other signings in 2017 has been the acquisition of former England U-23 midfielder Brooke Chaplen, the midfielder arriving after deciding to leave Sunderland after a previous spell with Everton.
Chaplen has been impressed with what she’s seen during her 12 months with the club so far and believes they can go even further in future campaigns.
“The amount of detail Kelly and her staff look into in regards to opposition and our own tactics, so much time goes into that. They’ve brought in players with a lot of experience who have achieved a lot and bring a lot of quality to the side, that’s combined with players who have been at the club a long time and it means a lot to everyone to do well.”
With the club now able to take on the big sides, culminating in a last-minute equalizer against Chelsea last time out, it’s a testament to the progress Reading have shown that Chaplen said the team were disappointed not to take three points.
“The first twenty minutes we didn’t play as well as we had done, but by the end I think both teams would have been disappointed not to take three points,” says the 28-year-old.
“I had a one-on-one I was disappointed not to score and Lauren Bruton and Remi Allen had chances too. You have to look at that and look at how close we were to taking three points off a team that might very well win the league this season. We have to take a lot of credit from the fact we were so close and I think we’ll challenge the top teams for points this season.
With Millwall’s Hincks looking forward to the challenge of Sunday’s encounter despite nothing being on offer, Chaplen says Reading will be taking the match as equally seriously as they look to stamp their authority by beating Arsenal to top spot in the group.
“This game is really important to us as a club, it will determine whether or not we finish top of the group. If we lose, then we’ve beaten Arsenal and still come second and we’d be really disappointed as a club if we let that happen.
“We’ll go into the game like it’s any other game, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Chelsea, Arsenal, or a team in the league below. I think we’ve let ourselves down in the cup against the FA WSL 2 teams because we haven’t played the football we’d like to play, so Sunday is about going out and showing what we can do.”